There are so many backbends in the sea! Don't worry child, you'll find the right one.
Backbends can be similar to the dating scene—some are exciting, many are terrifying and often painful, and then there are a select few that simply shine. This week's challenge pose is all about opening the heart, finding your foundation AND reaching for the sky. It's a beautiful blend of all the elements we want to cultivate in our yoga practice. We're going to work the base of the pose (Headstand), the space of the pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), and then see if we can lengthen it out, combine it and reach for possibilities.
How will this date with your challenge pose go? Who knows. But I do know one thing—love openly and fearlessly. Pursue as if your heart has never been broken. A world of space and possibilities await you.
Begin on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet hip width apart on the mat. Reverse your palms behind your shoulders shoulder-width apart so that the fingertips point towards your body. Press into your feet and lift your hips as you curl your chest and lift your head, place the crown of your head directly onto the mat. Hug your elbows in over your wrists, firm your triceps in, keep the shoulders in their sockets and curl your chest towards the back of the room. Keep all these actions and press the ground away to lift the head up towards straight arms. Keep your knees and fee hip-width apart and your bottom relaxed. Press deeply into both heels to drive the shinbones back to help elevate your hips and broaden your chest. Take 8 breaths then keep the elbows in, bend them, tuck your chin and come back down to rest.
The base of this backbend is headstand so that seems like a pretty good pose to explore! If you can't balance headstand in the middle of the room yet move your mat over to a wall space and keep your knuckles at the floorboard. Feel free to stay in the middle of the room if your body allows. Interlace all of your fingers tucking the bottom pinky into your cupped palms. Place the outer edges of your laced hands onto the ground like a karate chop with the wrists. Elbows are shoulder-width apart and keep enough space in your palms so that they're not splaying nor are they closed shut. Place the crown of your head on the ground directly behind the heels of your hand (don't cup your skull, this will make you collapse in your wrists and make you lose stability). Curl your toes under, lift your knees and straighten your legs. Walk your feet in toward your face to come into a Dolphin Pose. Keep your shoulders lifting, triceps hugging in and your elbows rooting down. If you have the flexibility, walk your feet in close enough that you can lift both feet at the same time with straight legs all the way up into your balance. If not, hug one knee into your chest and give yourself a small hop to pull into a cannonball shape. From your pike (the cannonball) pull both legs up together into your full headstand (let the heels rest against the wall if you're not balancing). Focus on the lift of your shoulders away from your earlobes, the rotation of your outer arms in and the foundation of the forearms and elbows. It should almost feel as though you could slide a piece of paper between the floor and your head. Take 8 breaths to a minute hold and come down into Child's Pose.
Lie on your back with the knees bent and the soles of the feet flat and hip-width apart. Reverse your palms and place them down shoulder-width apart directly above your shoulders. Lift the hips, press into the feet, and come onto the crown of your head. Pause here. Practice hugging the elbows in over the wrists, drawing the tips of the shoulder blades toward the heart, and curling the chest. Next, place one forearm down at a time so the fingers are pointing in the direction of the feet. Interlace your fingers behind your head like you were setting up for Headstand. Once the hands are set, press down into the forearms to lift the head off of the mat. Continue the mantra of “triceps in, elbows root.” Imagine shrinking your armpits and firming the upper outer edges of the arms in. Gently practice curling the chest through the arms to open the throat and heart. Use the strength of your legs to help transfer more opening into the chest vicinity. Keep the curling of the upper chest and walk both feet several steps away from the upper body. Step the feet together so the inner edges touch. Push into the feet to work the legs toward straight or as far as they’ll comfortably go for you. Roll the upper inner thighs down and push powerfully into the big toes. Relax the neck and try to hold for 8 full breaths.
Keep holding the posture from step 3. Find a rooting down on all four corners of your left foot as you bend your right knee and draw your foot off of the ground. This might be a good place to practice—simply lifting the opposite foot away from the ground. Then can you bend the knee in toward your chest to engage your hip flexor. When you get comfortable with that begin to extend the leg directly up towards the ceiling. Spread the toes as if you were reaching for something an exude energy and length behind the back of your right knee cap. If you have the energy, switch sides. If not, place the foot back down and walk your feet back in so the knees are bent. Undo the lacing of your hands and set your palms up for Urdhva Dhanurasana. Press up into the full backbend for one breath and then come down and rest. Hug the knees into your chest.
*big thank you to Shanti Yoga Studio in McCall, Idaho for letting me take my photos in their space!
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and is currently writing Rodale’s The Big Book of Yoga. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website.